The technology that changed our lives

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    24 March 2012 | NewScientist | 53

    Cosmic kick-offThe big bang from an insiders view is a riveting read, says Michael Brooks

    How it Began: A time-travelers guide to the universe by Chris Impey, W. W. Norton, 17.99/$27.95

    ASTRONOMER Chris Impey isnt quite sure whether hed bet more than the tip of his little finger on the big bang theory being right. He reckons

    his whole forearm would be a lot to put up for a bet on science, with all its uncertainties. Losing the tip of his pinkie seems about right: he would at least be able to wear the disfigurement as an astronomers badge of honour, a mark of his trust in the four independent strands of evidence that support our best theory of how the universe began.

    Having dispensed with How it Ends in his impressive last book, Impey has now turned his attention to the start of everything. It is no less of a treat; somehow he renders the universe tangible to the human brain, never forgetting to relate cosmic concepts to our

    everyday scales of experience. Riffing on the vastness of the solar system, he points out how long it takes signals to travel to Mars and back, and how that affects the speed at which NASA engineers can move their robot explorers across the Red Planets surface. In a

    Computer influence Digitized: The science of computers and how it shapes our world by Peter J. Bentley, Oxford University Press, 16.99/$29.95

    Reviewed by Niall Firth

    THE science of computing touches every aspect of our lives, but how many of us really know how it works or how we got to where we are today?

    Mars day, the rovers would barely cross your living room, he says, neatly conveying the grinding tedium that is inseparable from the extraordinary achievements of our space programmes.

    Impey is in a class of his own when it comes to guiding the reader through the infinite reaches of the universe. He is a masterly exponent of comparison and metaphor; the galaxies, he says, are butterflies caught mid-flight, arranged on black felt all around

    Its quite a story. In Digitized, computer scientist Peter J. Bentley has to zip through decades to cram it all into just 240 pages. He looks at the way computing has grown from its early theoretical basis in mathematics to now encompass many things we take for granted, covering the giant vacuum-tube machines of the 1950s, the birth of the internet and beyond along the way.

    But Digitized is as much about the people behind the breakthroughs the bright, inquisitive minds who saw something that their peers did

    not and used the tools of their era to push forward human understanding. Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Claude Shannon and Douglas Engelbart flit in and out of the narrative as we learn about the birth of rudimentary coding and transistors. While Bentley delivers the technical detail in an easy-to-understand manner, it is the tales of these pioneers which give the book its heart and colour.

    The first part of Digitized shows innovators struggling to shine a light on the future, but it is when that future begins to reveal itself

    that we see the scope of what they set in motion. Stock market monitoring, biologically inspired software agents and multicore processors seem to come from a different planet to the one inhabited by those early computer scientists.

    Even so, attempts to build a synthetic brain and the many false dawns of artificial intelligence show how todays computer scientists wrestle with the same question their predecessors did: what does computing teach us about what it means to be human? n

    us, ready for our inspection. He wears his insiders knowledge

    lightly and is generous towards those who approach the universe and existence from a religious viewpoint. He sometimes travels to Tibet to teach cosmology to Buddhist monks. And he counts the Jesuit priest-astronomers who make annual pilgrimages to Arizona in order to use a telescope in the Pinaleo mountains as valued friends and colleagues though he admits he hasnt yet worked out whether it is OK to wear swimming trunks while watching them celebrate mass.

    Thats not the only unknown this Arizona-based astronomer faces, though. Replete with dark matter and dark energy, the universe is mocking us with its secrets. We are, he says, a young species, and our science is also immature. Impey is fine with astronomers not yet having all the answers, and many are painted here as flawed characters acting as strangely as humans often do.

    Impey comes across as very human himself: this is not just a book about the history of the cosmos, it is a compelling insight into what it is to be an astronomer grappling with the fundamental questions of existence. n

    Michael Brooks is the author of Free Radicals: The secret anarchy of science (Profile, 2011)

    Would you bet your right arm on the big bang theory being true?

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